Opponent outlook: Virginia becoming formidable under head coach Bronco Mendenhall

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The resurrection of Virginia’s football program looks complete in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s fourth season.

In fact, a victory at No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) this Saturday (3:30 EDT on NBC) is not inconceivable for UVA. The No. 18 Cavaliers (4-0) are off to their best start since 2004. With the help of a weak ACC Coastal Division, UVA could register 10 wins for the first time in over 30 years.

UVA’s surge has plenty to do with its 3-4 defense. The Cavaliers are No. 1 in sacks per game (5.0), tied for fifth in tackles for a loss (39), No. 12 in run defense, No. 14 in total defense and No. 37 in pass efficiency defense.

Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins continues to lead the UVA offense. In 2018, Perkins was one of two quarterbacks to pass for at least 2,600 yards and rush for over 900 yards. The other one was former Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

All of Mendenhall’s progress nearly came to a halt against Old Dominion last week. The Monarchs entered halftime with a 17-0 advantage before the Cavaliers registered 28 unanswered points in the 28-17 victory.

Was UVA’s first half a mirage, or did it expose a weakness? We caught up with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch to learn more about the Cavaliers.

Virginia really seemed to struggle against ODU. What did that game tell you about where the Cavaliers are now?

Barber: I don’t put too much stock in what I saw in the first half last week. I think UVA was emotionally spent from the previous weekend’s big home win over Florida State. The program and team put a ton into that game, drew a huge crowd and delivered a thrilling win (31-24). To be a four-touchdown favorite the next time out, with Notre Dame looming the following week, I wasn’t all that surprised by the first-half letdown.

The major takeaways, however, were that the offensive line is still very much a work in progress. Not having starting center Olusegun Oluwatimi (hand) for that game seemed to really disrupt things. It’s unclear if Oluwatimi will be cleared to play this week.

The second thing is that Virginia’s defense can carry it when the offense isn’t clicking. The Cavaliers held ODU to just 46 total yards in the second half. Snowden and Mack were disruptive forces.

On Monday, Mendenhall said something about UVA accomplishing a lot of firsts during his tenure. What do you believe are the biggest things he’s achieved so far?

Barber: First, take into account where he started. UVA was the worst team in the ACC and Bronco won two games his first season. That first year was spent changing the team’s general demeanor, especially in-game on the sidelines. Since then? He’s turned UVA into a consistent winner, with back-to-back bowl appearances. This season, they’re the favorite to win the ACC’s weak-as-always Coastal Division. Mendenhall deserves a ton of credit for taking Virginia from laughing stock to title contender in just four years.

Some of his methods are unorthodox, bordering on weird. Players don’t get jersey numbers until fall camp. The star of the game smashes a rock in the locker room with a sledgehammer.

But his players have ate it up and bought in, and he’s delivering wins.

From Snowden to cornerback Bryce Hall, UVA has some studs on defense. What do you expect their game plan to be against Notre Dame?

Barber: In short, UVA will focus on stopping the run, and it will trust Hall and fellow corner Nick Grant to cover downfield. Snowden and Mack have the speed to make plays side to side, to defend the running game and contain Ian Book.

The Cavaliers are tied for the national lead in sacks, and they’ve gotten there by blitzing a ton. The confidence they have in Hall and Grant frees them up to send those blitzes.

What have been the best and worst parts to Perkins’ game this season?

Barber: The biggest criticism of Perkins is that he’s not keeping himself safe. A great example came in the fourth quarter of the ODU win. Perkins attempted to pick up an errant snap instead of just falling on it. He thought he had time to pick the ball up and make a play. He didn’t. Instead, he took a big hit and had to come out of the game for a play. UVA takes a major step back without him in the game, and Perkins needs to be extra cognizant of protecting himself.

The best thing he does is improvise and make spectacular running plays. His speed and vision have led to some really impressive scoring runs, including a jaw-dropping two-point conversion against Florida State and a nifty touchdown against ODU.

He’s really improved the accuracy of his passing this year, and needs some other wide receivers to step up to help Joe Reed.

What does UVA need to do to pull off the upset? If Notre Dame wins, what do you think would have gone wrong for UVA?

Barber: Perkins needs to stay healthy and hit some big passes. Defensively, Virginia needs to stuff the run and force a turnover or two. If UVA plays its best, it can go to South Bend and beat Notre Dame.

But if it struggles on the offensive line, has special teams mistakes and/or turns the ball over, it can find itself on the wrong end of a blowout.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Virginia 24.

Barber: I think Virginia plays well, but there’s still a talent gap between it and a Top 10 program like Notre Dame. And I’m worried about the offensive line.

Virginia has won 12 of its last 17 games under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.